Burma’s Western Border as Reported by the Diplomatic Correspondence

(1947 – 1975) Aye Chan
(Kanda University of International Studies, Japan)

(a)   Introduction

If one explores the diplomatic records of the British Commonwealth in the National Archives in London, two files bound with the corresponding letters between the British Embassy in Rangoon, the Foreign Office in London, the High Commissioner of the United Kingdom in Karachi, Pakistan and the Deputy High Commissioner of the United Kingdom in Dacca (Dhaka) will be found in the accession to the Southeast Asia Collection. According to the British Archival Law, they were kept secret as government documents until 1979 and 2005.  Both files consist of the correspondence between these diplomatic missions, regarding Burma-East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) border problems.  Burma (Myanmar) was a British colony until 1948 and the Arakan (Rakhine State) that shares an international boundary of 45 miles was the first Burmese province annexed to British India after the First Anglo-Burmese War (1924-26). The Naaf River serves as the border between the two countries. These documents have shed lights on new information on the Jihadist movement of the Chittagonian residents (so-called Rohingya) in North Arakan, the illegal cross-border migrations and the communal violence on Burma’s western frontier in the first decade of independent Burma.

(b)   On the Mujahid Rebellion in Arakan.

The Mujahids of Chittagonian Muslims from North Arakan declared jihad on Burma after the central government refused to grant a separate Muslim state in the two townships, Buthidaung and Maungdaw that lie along the East Pakistani (present-day Bangladeshi) border. The Mujahid movement launched before Burma gained independence and hassled the resettlement program for the refugees in the Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships. During the war, the Arakanese inhabitants of Buthidaung and Maungdaw were forced to leave their homes.

The people of Buthidaung fled to Kyauktaw and Minbya where the Arakanese were the majority. The Arakanese from Maungdaw were evacuated to Dinajpur in East Bengal by the British officials. Even though the British administration was reestablished after the war, the Arakanese were unable to return to their homes.

“For want of funds only 277 out of about 2400 indigenous Arakanese, who were displaced from Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships after the British evacuation in 1942, could be resettled on the sites of their original homes. There are also two thousand Arakanese Buddhist refuges brought for fear of Muslims’ threatening and frightening them by firing machine guns near the villages at night. While our hands are full with internally displaced refugees we cannot take the responsibility for repatriation of the Muslim refugees from the Sabirnagar camp which the government of India is pressing.[1]”

The Muslim refugees from the camp at Subirnagar were also unable to resettle in the interior part of Akyab District at Alegyun, Apaukwa and Gobedaung. All 3,000 of them were first sent to Akyab Island. Two Muslim Relief Committees were formed in Akyab and Buthidaung in order to give assistance possible to refugees. The proposal to send about 1,500 refugees in small batches to the Muslim villages in Buthidaung Township for the time being was accepted. The District Welfare Officer was instructed to work out the expense for transport and supporting building materials.[2]

            In August 1947, the Sub-Divisional Officer of Maungdaw, U Tun Oo, was brutally murdered by the Muslims. The Commissioner of Arakan reports:

“I have no doubt that this is a result of a long fostered communal feeling by the Muslims. The assassins who committed the murder were suspected to be employed by the Muslim Police Officers and have been organizing strong Muslim feelings and dominating the whole areas. This is a direct affront and open challenge to the lawful authority of the Burma Government by the Muslim Community of Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships whose economic invasion of this country was fostered during the British regime. Unless this most dastardly flouting of the government is firmly and severely dealt with, this alien community will try to annex this territory or instigate Pakistan to annex it.[3]”

      The newly independent republic had to cope with the insurgency of Karen ethnic group and the communists in the country after gaining independence in 1948. Major cities were captured by the Communists and Karen rebels. Two battalions of its regular army went underground to join the communists. The Capital City, Rangoon, was surrounded by the Karen rebels. The Union government was scrawled in the international newspapers with the epithet of “Rangoon Government.” In such a situation only a few hundreds troops from the Battalion (5) were sent to the western front to fight the Mujahids. About the objective and strength of the Mujahids, the British Embassy in Rangoon reports to the Foreign Office in London on February 12, 1949.

“It is hard to say whether the ultimate object of the Muslims is that their separate state should remain within the Union or not, but it seems likely that even an autonomous state within the Union would necessarily be drawn towards Pakistan. The Mujahids seem also to have taken arms in about October last, although this does not exclude the possibility that some have not gone underground and are still trying to obtain their objective by agitation only. There are perhaps 500 Muslims under arms, although the total number of supporters of the movement is greater.[4]”

Buthidaung and Maungdaw were under the control of the government forces but the countryside around the town was out of control.

One report gives a detailed account of the visit of Prime Minister U Nu and the Supreme Commander of the Burmese Army, Lieutenant General Smith Dun to Akyab in October of 1948. It says that the local officials in East Pakistan provided information and aid to the insurgents from across the border. The Sub-Divisional Officer and the Township Officer from Cox’s Bazaar were reported to have supplied the Muslim guerrillas with arms and ammunition. The wounded rebels were apparently able to obtain treatment from the hospital in Cox’s Bazaar. According to the report of the Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong Hill Tracts, both the commissioner and the Burmese officials were informed that the two Mujahid leaders, Jaffar Meah and Omra Meah, were hiding in Balukhali village in East Pakistan, near to the Burmese border.[5] The British Embassy in Rangoon sent a confidential letter to the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Pakistan on February 28, 1949; this letter dealt with the probability of provocation and interference from local Pakistani officials on the other side of the border. It reads:

“In spite of the correct attitude of the Pakistan Central Government there have been fairly reliable reports that their local officials in, for instance, Cox’s Bazaar have actively helped Muslim guerrillas. You yourselves are well aware of the pro-guerrilla attitude in this affair of the Pakistan district officers. The Pakistan Government must also be aware of it, and we feel that if they do not curb these officials they may run the risks of provoking Anti-Muslim riots in Akyab district as bad as those which occurred during the war.[6]”

The main financial source of the Mujahid Party was the smuggling of rice from Arakan to East Pakistan. Their actions were all part of an overall strategy to prevent the government forces from enforcing the prohibition rice export.

It has been reported that even the Muslim leaders, Sultan Ahmed and Omra Meah were involved in this illegal border trade.[7] To solve the problem of this rice shortage in in the Chittagong District of East Pakistan, regional officials seem to have sought cooperation with the Mujahid leaders. For many years the Mujahid Party leaders monopolized the smuggling of rice across the border.

                The main objective of the rebellion was  to absorb the western frontier of Burma into East Pakistan. The newspaper, On May 18, 1949, The Hindustan Standard newspaper, reported  about the following about the Mujahids.

“A dangerous aspect of this fighting is its international aspect: the Moslem insurgents have been carrying the Pakistani flag, and many of them clamor for the incorporation of this end of Arakan with Pakistan. It was suspected that they drew arms from across the border; the Government, however, is now satisfied that their rifles and ammunition are old stocks, left behind by the Japanese and British…. The great majority of Arakan Moslems are said to be really Pakistanis from Chittagong, even if they have been settled here for a generation. Out of the 130,000 here, 80,000 are still Pakistani citizens.”[8] 

When India, Pakistan and Burma gained independence, the immigrants from British India were granted the choice of citizenship in either India or Pakistan. They could also choose Burmese citizenship if they were so inclined. The Pakistani Government was very anxious that the Burmese Government would use brutal tactics to suppress the rebellion. Pakistan feared that the atrocities in the Burmese border regions would lead to anti-Burma demonstrations in Pakistan, which might in turn instigate Anti-Pakistan riots in Burma. Such situation would be very dangerous for the Pakistani residing in Burma. It was reported that 6,000 to 7,000 refugees had arrived in East Pakistan. The authorities in Karachi were also concerned about the communists infiltrating into Pakistan with the refugees.[9]  

In the Akyab District of Arakan it was reported that only the town and island of Akyab were firmly in the hands of the Burmese government. Conditions had deteriorated following the withdrawal of the only Burmese Army battalion (Burma Rifle 5). The CPB (Communist Party of Burma) went underground in March 1948, and its followers in Arakan reached an agreement with the Mujahid Party to fight the government forces jointly.  The government of Pakistan was informed that the Communist Party of East Bengal had instructed its members to establish contacts with the Muslim communists in Arakan and persuade them to infiltrate the Cox’s Bazaar subdivision to organize Muslim cultivators for a revolt against the government of Burma had fallen to the communists,[10] as evidenced by the following record:

“This is borne out by a conversation which the Commissioner of Chittagong Division recently with one of the Mujahid leaders who said that the early agreement with the communists was that when the Burmese Government was overthrown, the Communists will leave Mujahid territory to become an independent state.[11]”

On June 17, 1949 the British Embassy in Rangoon sent a telegram to the Foreign Office in London about the fall of two district headquarters into communist hands. Sandoway fell on June 9, and Kyaupyu on June 10, as the result of a mutiny by the Union Military Police and levy garrisons in collusion with the local communists. The situation in Akyab was uncertain, and all air services were suspended[12].

A climate of mistrust and fear between the Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Chittagonians was growing, despite a peace mission sent by the Union government to North Arakan. Muslim leaders, carrying a credential from Premier Nu, were in contact with the insurgent Muslims and persuaded them to lay down their arms and drop their demand for autonomy.[13] The mission was not successful because it was more of a communal violence than a rebellion.  The prestigious newspaper of India, The Hindustan Standard, on May 18, 1949 reported:

“These guerrilla operations are less a Muslim insurrection against the government than “communal action” against the Arakanese – a prolongation of the Muslim-Buddhist riots of 1942.The Moslems, natives of Chittagong in what is now part of Pakistan – fear oppression by the Arakanese. The Arakanese, the intensely clannish community less than a million strong, hate their Buddhist Kith and kin, and are afraid of losing their identity in the growing Chittagongese population. Neither trusts the either[14]. “

The cooperation between the two countries improved the situation at the border after the instructions from Karachi were strictly enforced. In order to advance their joint operation and communications an agreement was reached for the establishment of a Pakistani Consulate in Akyab and a Burmese Consulate in Chittagong. Mohamed Ali, Pakistan’s High Commissioner designated to Canada, after relinquishing his post as ambassador to Burma, sent a statement to the press. He said that the impact of communist infiltration into Pakistan was being weakened by the joint operation of the two countries. At the same time the Pakistani government was persuading the refugees from Arakan to lay down their arms and to arrange for their repatriation when the conditions in Burma became more settled. Reuters reported that the governments of Burma and Pakistan were cooperating to restore peace in Arakan. Their cooperation was further displayed with units of East Pakistan Rifles being stationed along the border to cooperate with their Burmese counterparts.[15]

            However, since the middle of 1949, the Burmese Army’s offensive warfare was successful. As a result all the towns and major cities under the control of the rebels were recaptured. Sadar Aurengzeb Khan, Pakistani ambassador to Burma, who visited the East Bengal (East Pakistan), expressed confidence that the position of the Burmese Government was improving and that the power of the insurgents was on the decline. [16] The rebellion lasted one more decade until the Mujahid Party surrendered in 1960.

(c) Burma’s Relations with Pakistan and Bangladesh

In 1962, the Army took power in a coup d’état and Burma has been under military rule since then. The position of Muslims in Arakan was still a subject of discussion between the two countries. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, visited Burma from January 18 to 21, 1964. In his statement he said:

“The Moslems in that portion of Arakan which adjoins with East Pakistan number about 400,000 and have lived there for generations and have acquired Burmese nationality. But they are patently of Pakistani origin and occasionally some Pakistani cross into Arakan illegally and mingled with the population. As part of drive to detect these illegal immigrants the local Burmese authorities have for some time employ extremely oppressive measures. The Pakistan Government is anxious that these Arakanese Moslems should not be goaded into leaving Burma and taking refuge in East Pakistan which cannot support them. Mr. Bhutto therefore urged the Burmese to modify their attitude towards these people and offered the maximum cooperation in dealing with any genuine illegal immigrants…. Ali Bhutto expressed his belief that the Burmese government would solve the question of Muslims in Arakan with sympathetic consideration and assured that Pakistan on its part would be glad to extend maximum cooperation in any way possible consistent with its policy of good neighborly relations.[17]”

            General and Madame Ne Win, accompanied by Burmese Foreign Minister U Thi Han visited Pakistan from May 7 to 11, 1964. The Burmese party was received by President Ayub Khan, and on May 9, 1964 the Pakistan Burma Border Agreement was signed. Both sides agreed to mark the River Naaf which stretches 45 miles between the two countries, as the international border. Until the outbreak of the Independence War in Bangladesh, relations between Burma and Pakistan were friendly and there was no border problem until Burma launched the Hinthar Operation to investigate the illegal immigrants in 1986.
             After the coup d’état in Bangladesh in 1975, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, was assassinated and there was a dramatic change in the foreign policy of the country. The British Ambassador in Rangoon, T.J. O’Brien had a confidential talk with the Bangladeshi Ambassador, Mr. K. N. Kaiser on December 23, 1975. Mr. Kaiser was appointed by Sheik Mujibur Rahman in July 1975 as the permanent representative for Bangladesh at the United Nations. Following the bewildering coup d’état in Dacca, that appointment was cancelled and he was nominated as ambassador to Beijing instead. The British ambassador reports:

“He [Mr. Kaiser] admitted that there were upward of a half million Bengali trespassers in Arakan whom the Burmese had some right to eject. He had implored the Burmese authorities not to press this issue during Bangladesh’s present troubles and had been pleased that the Burmese had not taken advantage of his country’s misfortunes in this respect. He denied that there had been any fresh exodus into Burma.[18]”

The records of the Hinthar Operation have not been available in any archives in Burma. Although the Burmese Government should be blamed for the brutal and inhuman measures taken on these illegal immigrants during the operation it was reasonable for Ne Win’s government to take action on the illegal immigration across the border.

(c)    Conclusion

Since the beginning of the Chittagonian uprising in 1947, they called themselves Mujahid. That means the founder and defender of Islamic law in Sunni Islam. The revolt was intended to convert northern Arakan, especially Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships, into Dar al-Islam, the region under Muslim sovereignty where the Islamic law prevails. The so-called Rohigya Organizations still see the territory as Dar al-Harb, the Territory of the war of the Holy War, and believe that it is their obligation to wage Jihad on the Union of Burma. The two separate files in the British National Archives in London consist of diplomatic correspondence regarding the Chittagonian Bengalis’ Jihadist movement in the northern Arakan of Burma, the attitudes of the Burmese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and British governments. There is no doubt that all of these documents give new information on the background of the current problem of Muslim minority in Burma’s western frontier.


Note: In this paper the term “Chittagonian” is used as these people are indicated in the British colonial records, although they are recently called in the Medias as “Rohingyas.” The Burmese government has refused to accept the claim of the ethnic identity of “Rohingya.”    

[1] The Report of the Commissioner’s Office of Arakan, dated the 18th April, 1947 (The National Archives, London, FO 643/74
[2] Ibid
[3] The Monthly Report of the Commissioner of Arakan for August 1947, dated the 13th September, 1947 (National Archives, London : FO 643/79)
[4] The Letter from British Embassy, Rangoon, to the Foreign Office in London, dated the 12th February, 1949, The National Archives, London: 2-SEA 60/611:DO 196/133
[5] The Report of the Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong Hill Tracts, dated the 7th February 1949 (The National Archives, London: 2-SEA 60/611: DO 196/133).
[6] The National Archives, London: 2-SEA 60/611:DO 196/133
[7] Ibid
[8] The Newspaper cutting is attached to weekly report No. 21 for the period ending 28th May, 1949, from the Deputy High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in in Pakistan, Dacca (The National Archives, London: 2-SEA 60/611: DO 196/133).
[9] The Letter from Common wealth Relations Office, London to the High Commissioner for Unite Kingdom in Karachi, Pakistan, dated the 19th May 1949 (The National Archives, London: (NA/2-SEA 60/611:DO 196/133).
[10] A Telegram from the British Embassy to the Foreign Office in London (April 3, 1949), NA/ 2-SEA 60/611: DO: 196/133).
[11]  (a) A Letter from the Deputy High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Pakistan, Dacca to H.E Sir Lawrence G. Smith, the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Pakistan, Karachi, reference 144, dated the 28th February, 1949.

 (b) A Telegram from the British Embassy in Rangoon to Foreign Office, London (April 3, 1949): NA/ 2-SEA 60/611O:196/133.
[12] Telegram No. 602 from the British Embassy to the Foreign Office in London, dated the 17th June, 1949 (National Archives, London, 2- SEA 60/611: DO 196/333.
 [13] The Reuter News, attached to Weekly Report No. 21 from the period ending the 28th May, 1949 from the Deputy High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Pakistan, Dacca.
[14] See the reference 5.  The term, “Chittagongese” is as it appears in the newspaper.
[15] Weekly Report of the 28th May 1949, from the Deputy High Commissioner for United Kingdom in Pakistan, Dacca to the Foreign Office, London. (NA/2-SEA 60/611:DO 196/333)
 [16] The Report Number 26, for the period ending the 2nd July, 1949, from the Deputy High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Pakistan, Dacca (The National Archives, London, 2-SEA 60/6/1:DO 196/333)
[17] The talk between Pakistani Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Burmese Foreign Minister U Thi Han on the Ali Bhutto’s visit to Burma from January 18 to 21, 1964. (The Confidential Letter of the British High Commissioner in Rawalpindi, Pakistan to the Common Wealth Relations Office, London, The National Archives, London, 2-SEA 60/6/1)
[18] The National Archives, London, FCO 15/2041 – C384097


...Posted By... Arakan Research Centre ...Date... Monday, November 14, 2011. ...Post Title... , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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